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Should College Basketball Players Be Allowed to Opt Out?

And is it different than quitting?

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The snow had piled up outside with a large section of Indiana being covered. A lot of people had gone to bed. That didn’t stop Twitter though. Twitter had a point to make and by God it was going to make it! It was time to tear down a 19 year old for deciding to opt out of the rest of the season at Duke!

For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, heralded freshman Jalen Johnson announced that he was opting out of the remaining three weeks in order to prepare for the NBA Draft. Duke is somehow terrible this year. I don’t fully understand how that happens at a place like Duke but that’s not the point. Upon hearing news of him opting out internet toughs went into full attack mode. Here’s just a sampling of some of the tweets that came across my timeline this morning.

There are many more including some that call him some rather disgusting and vile names as you might imagine (I won’t link to those but feel free to search Twitter for more gems.). Imagine spewing that much hate at someone who decides that for their best interest maybe it’s time to move on.

The culture of fandom in this country, and probably around the world too hello soccer riots, is just out of control. We watch these players a couple of times a week and we think we know them and not only that, we think we know what’s best for them. These are college athletes. These are 18-22 year old men and women who are just trying to find their place in the world. Will some of them go on to be millionaires? Absolutely, but it’s a minuscule portion. The vast majority are just trying to get by.

Jalen Johnson is a top 15 recruit who chose to play at Duke. He didn’t know what this season would be like due to Covid-19. He didn’t know that Duke’s schedule would see cancellation of numerous non-conference games. He also didn’t know that Duke would likely be on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament. This is a young man who is going to be in the NBA. For how long? It’s tough to say. But, going to play in college is basically an apprenticeship program for him. Coach K and Duke know this. He’s a rental. He’s a one year guy. This was understood when he stepped onto campus. So why criticize him now when the season has been a mess, he’s injured his foot, and he’s just trying to move on to the next phase of his life?

Let’s not pretend like this is some sort of iron-clad idealism that these fans have about the nature of the game and that all of these players are “student-athletes” with the student part coming first. Let’s knock that nonsense down right away. People are mad because they think he’s a quitter and because they wish they were him. I’ll admit it, I’d love to be in his shoes and so would you. Be 19 with all that talent and the world in front of you and doors opening up all over the place with the prospect of millions of dollars staring at you. Sign me up.

In these type of online conversations I’ll almost always side with the athlete. You know why? Money. You know how much money Coach K got for this season? Just a shade under $9 million. Was Coach K a quitter when he cancelled a bunch of games due to Covid fears? You know what Johnson got from Duke? One year of free education, some food, some spending money, and some exposure. You think that adds up to the value that he brings? Hell, forget about Johnson right now. Do you think any big name football or basketball player truly gets their rightful share of the revenue they bring in? Maybe you’d prefer a bigger name. How about Trevor Lawrence at Clemson? Clemson’s football program basically prints money at this point. Do we think Lawrence is getting more money as the revenue from the football program goes up due to his performance on the field? I’ll just let you know that no he does not.

When a coach leaves a university before a bowl game or after the season despite giving recruits his word you rarely see a sustained sense of anger at that coach. Lane Kiffin might be the exception but people just don’t seem to like him in general. Has that coach quit on his team? Some may say yes but more often than not it’s labeled a business decision. It’s a career move. Well guess what, these players that opt out (remember Rondale Moore did this as well) are looking out for their careers too.

As fans we want players to stay and entertain us. We want them to bring home the titles and the prestige to our chosen university. The hard truth though is that those players have individual lives and individual circumstances that you and I don’t know and will never know.

Did Jalen Johnson quit on Duke? Maybe he did. So what? He doesn’t owe you or me anything. He needs to look out for himself because odds are Duke won’t be there for him if things go bad. Players get kindly asked to move on all the time and we don’t shame the coaches for sending a player packing. Perhaps Tom Crean is the exception here as Spring Creaning became a term of derision based upon his multiple transfers each off-season. Even then, Tom Crean is doing just fine (I reiterate that IU never should’ve fired that weirdo).

This has been an unprecedented season in college sports. Entire seasons were cancelled, players were confused and upset, coaches didn’t know what to do, and the NCAA is trying to build a bubble in Indianapolis. No one knows what’s going to happen but one thing is for sure, even when that snow stops there will still be people making fools of themselves with hot takes on the internet. For now, let’s allow a 19 year old to make the best decision he can to stay healthy and to move on in his career. I would hope that if he were at Purdue we would comport ourselves a bit better than some corners of Twitter have been over the last day.